Pandemic priorities: Vermont lawmakers prepare for start of session
MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers are gearing up for a legislative session dominated by the pandemic and its ripple effects on society.
Because of COVID-19, lawmakers will start off the session fully remote again, which will have an impact on which issues they can tackle. And as fresh faces dig into work, the pandemic and its economic fallout will define almost everything that happens under the virtual golden dome.
Tens of thousands are still unemployed, small businesses are struggling and education property taxes are slated to increase 9%.
“Businesses, like everybody, are struggling during the pandemic,” said Betsy Bishop, the executive director of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
Bishop says Vermont’s businesses, including restaurants and hotels, are looking to the Legislature for more grants from the latest federal relief package.
“In very much the same way we’ve seen the business grants go out the door from the Legislature in the summer and fall, and targeting those businesses that need it the most,” Bishop said.
In the pandemic sphere at the virtual Statehouse, leaders will also tackle broadband buildout, child care and the rollout of a vaccine. But even amid the emergency, lawmakers are also poised to take on pre-pandemic issues.
Comprehensive Act 250 reform fizzled out during the last session, ending with just two proposals that were vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott. Advocates plan on making another go at the now 51-year-old land use law in smaller bite-sized pieces of legislation, including forest fragmentation and aligning Act 250 with regional development rules.
“Building and migration into the state happening at a steady pace has probably been exacerbated by COVID and will be by climate change, so it’s never a good time to put your guard down when it comes to making environmental policies which make Vermont so special,” said Brian Shupe, the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
And following a summer of racial reckoning, the Vermont ACLU says they’re pushing for policies dealing with the systemic racial justice impact of the pandemic, as well as nonpandemic policies.
“Vermont has continued to show that we can enact smart justice policies, that we can be smart about prisons and policing in the state. We want to continue to make those kinds of changes,” said James Lyall of the ACLU of Vermont.
Because coronavirus cases remain high, lawmakers will be doing all of their business online until at least March. Leaders admit how much they can accomplish virtually will be hampered by working remotely but they say they are confident they can adapt.
The session kicks off Wednesday when House lawmakers will be sworn in virtually and Senate lawmakers will hold a small ceremony at the Statehouse.
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